Walking from the plane to the airport terminal in Kigali, the capital of the central African country of Rwanda, I saw a sign on the door telling me that polyethylene bags are banned in Rwanda. “They’ll never make that work,” I remember thinking.
It wasn’t until I got to my hotel later that day, in the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that I realized I had unknowingly violated Rwandan law — there in my suitcase was a polyethylene bag full of small shampoo bottles, pens and other small items I’d intended as gifts. On the way back through Rwanda after completing a week-long consulting assignment, I was careful to not have any plastic bags in my luggage.
The Rwandans I met were quite proud of the bag ban, saying that it made the cities and countryside much cleaner.
And it seems to fit Rwanda’s shiny new positioning as a tourism and information technology destination. No plastic bags blowing in the wind as there were in Congo, where they could be eaten by domestic animals such as goats, and wildlife, with sometimes-lethal results for the animal.
Rwanda enacted its law in 2008, banning the manufacturing, import, use and sale of polyethylene bags. Some business owners complained about the higher cost of paper bags, but the government held firm, saying that in rich countries there were facilities to recycle plastic, but a country like Rwanda could not afford this. And indeed, the wood carvings I bought at a handicraft centre were handed to me in paper, not plastic, bags.
Given the opposition raised when some Canadian municipalities took steps to limit the use of plastic bags, I found the Rwandans’ quiet pride in their legislation to be quite welcome. If I travel to Rwanda again — and I hope to — it’s for sure that there won’t be any banned substances in my luggage.
— Carl Friesen